Hate Crime: A shifting policy landscape in Europe

By Joanna Perry

The last year has seen a lot of activity at the European level to better understand and counter hate crime and hate speech, which is set to continue into 2017. A major development has been the creation of the European Union High Level Group (HLG) on combating racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance hosted and led by the European Commission’s DG Justice. Drawing together Member States, civil society organisations and the main international organisations active in the field, its broad aim is to bring, ‘a further political impetus for the EU and its Member States to progress on countering hatred and intolerance in Europe’. This blog takes a look at some of its activities that focus on hate crime and the challenges and opportunities that they bring.[1]

Closer alignment for Inter Government Organisation?

One of the aims of the HLG is to, ‘step up cooperation and improve coordination between relevant actors, maximizing concrete impact on preventing and combating hate crime and hate speech on the ground’. The institutions of the main intergovernmental organisations working on hate crime have created a complex but mainly complementary plethora of training, reporting, monitoring and technical assistance programmes at the European level and beyond. This High Level Group and its connected subgroups provide an essential space for Member States and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to learn about and engage with this work and they raise the welcome possibility of increased alignment among the EU’s own and partner institutions. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Council of Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), its HELP programme and the work of its Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Unit (SOGI), and the European Union’s Agencies for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL) are all involved in the agenda-setting, work programmes and meetings of the HLG and its subgroups, bringing increased coherence to the European policy landscape on hate crime and hate speech.

From the perspectives of Member State representatives who are almost always working on other complex policy areas from violence against women, to trafficking and terrorism policy, with increasingly squeezed resources and, at times, precarious political support, this improved coordination and clarity is very important. Attendance at the HLG and its subgroup meetings by these international institutions gives Member States the chance to: discuss practical issues such as how to more effectively manage multiple and diverse requests for information for international reports; better understand the myriad training and technical support programmes on offer; and, to make personal connections that can lead to concrete action and better targeted government requests for assistance.

Keep civil society engaged

The HLG is an explicit platform for CSOs as well as Member States and partner IGOs. This is a welcome move from an ‘ad-hoc’ to a more systematic involvement of civil society in the hate crime/hate speech policy agenda. With their strong connections with the grassroots, unique understanding of the community perspective, and active social media presence, CSOs are essential partners. They are central to the delivery of obligations under the “Victims Directive”, or Directive 2012/29/EU establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, which, among many other obligations, requires Member States to assess the needs of victims of hate crime and refer them to appropriate support and adequately train law enforcement. CSOs also play a key role in contributing to the correct transposition and application in practice of hate crime legislation, including provisions transposing the Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia, which requires Member States to ensure that, “certain serious manifestations of racism and xenophobia are punishable by effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties throughout the European Union”.

As many CSOs are recipients of EC funding themselves, this space provides an important opportunity to share the outcomes of such projects and to receive fair scrutiny of their work. The Commission and its partners have the opportunity to model equal, honest and collaborative relationships, setting the tone for Member States that – it is fair to say –  take a varied approach to cooperating with and involving civil society.

Disseminating and supporting good practice?

A key aim of the platform is the “further exchange and dissemination of best practices between national authorities” and the support of “concrete discussions on how to fill existing gaps and better counter hate crime and hate speech”. For example, the FRA has created a useful  platform for Member States to share their activities in the area of training, recording, reporting and other resources. But to get the most out of each other’s practice Member States really need to get under its skin, to identify the elements that can be transferred, and to get inspired by unexpected practical details. For example, during a visit I co-organised to London’s Metropolitan Police (MPS) Violent Crime Directorate, a state representative from another country was very taken by the MPS practice of making the question of whether an incident was a hate crime a mandatory screen on its crime recording system. This simple approach to ‘mainstreaming’ hate crime recording is the sort of detail that is more likely to be revealed and made sense of when those expert and responsible practitioners are supported to connect and learn from each other in person and in context. It is also important that this work feeds into concrete outcomes at the European level such as the recently published “Hate crime training for law enforcement and criminal justice authorities: 10 key guiding principles” and a live map of existing, upcoming and relevant initiatives across Europe.

In its efforts to share good practice, IGOs must not take their eye off the need to help sustain it. There are hundreds of individuals across Europe from public authorities and civil society creating and implementing this practice every day. More than just the invites to share their work on various European platforms, they need the political, financial and moral support to keep going and secure their sometimes fragile progress on addressing hate crime. The well-resourced ongoing DG Justice funding programme is one way to achieve this, but we need to know more about what really helps those at the centre of efforts to keep hate crime on the agenda and sustain effective action to understand and address it. This is a key aim of the EC funded Facing All the Facts programme, which will research what supports – and what hinders – the efforts of those at the centre of understanding and addressing hate crime in Europe.

Hate crime data under scrutiny

Victim under-reporting, the need to improve police ability to recognise hate crimes, and the limitations of current recording systems are some of the established challenges facing the FRA- led Subgroup on methodologies for recording and collecting data on hate crime. The current squeeze on resources to monitor and address hate crime faced by practitioners in many EU States, and the arguably unprecedented questioning of scientifically verified hate crime statistics by some introduce new barriers to bringing victims’ and survivors’ experiences into the public consciousness. Taken together, these challenges introduce a new sense of urgency to the work of the group. We now need the most innovative thinking about how law enforcement can best play its part to encourage people to report, and to capture, verify and make public the best information on the nature and prevalence of hate crime and what works to stop it.

The challenges are there but the High Level Group and its subgroups provide the right structure and space and thus the best chance yet to meet them.

[1] It is also important to note that there is a detailed programme of work and related subgroup that aims to address hate speech across Europe, including monitoring the implementation of the Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online, in partnership with Member States and CSOs, which would need another blog post to adequately consider.


Joanna Perry is co-chair of the INHS advisory board and an independent hate crime consultant.


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